Sunday, May 2, 2010

Secrets of Monopoly

My friend Cheryl brought my attention to this story, which I had missed when the details were declassified in 2007...

You will notice, if you look closely, that the map above was printed on silk. Why so? So that it wouldn't rustle upon opening after it got into the hands of British prisoners of war during World War II. And how did it get into the hands of POWs? By way of Monopoly games. No kidding!

As an increasing number of British airmen were captured by the Germans beginning in 1941, King George VI (1895-1952) was looking for a way to facilitate their escape. A map showing safe houses where escapees could go for food and shelter would be immensely helpful, but in addition to their noise when used, maps degraded under conditions of rain and simple wear and tear. The answer was to print on silk, a technology perfected by only one manufacturer in England. It just so happened that John Waddington, Ltd. - happy to do its part for the war effort - was the U.K. licensee for the American board game Monopoly. A group of its employees were sworn to secrecy and worked in a securely guarded workshop to mass-produce silk escape maps keyed to the regions in Italy and Germany where Allied soldiers were held. The copyrightholder of the maps waived any royalties as part of the war effort. The folded maps were inserted inside Monopoly playing pieces, as were a small magnetic compass and a 2-part metal file that could easily be screwed together. Useful amounts of the appropriate currency were also hidden within the piles of Monopoly money.

The specially-packed games were inserted into CARE packages under the legitimate category of "games and pastimes" and shipped to the POWs by the International Red Cross. The rigged games were identified by a tiny red dot located in the corner of the "Free Parking" square, a sign British and American troops were advised about before they left on their missions. Once they escaped - which an estimated 11,000 or more did with the help of the game - they were sworn to secrecy indefinitely, so that the ruse could be repeated. They were finally allowed to speak about the secret in 2007, when Waddington's and its surviving craftsmen were finally honored in a public ceremony.

The story has been authenticated by with a few caveats: the date of "ceclassification" is uncertain and in fact the story was mentioned in the media prior to 2007, maps were printed on rayon and tissue paper in addition to silk, and the Waddington's archivist clarifies that the games were not delivered via the Red Cross (so as not to jeopardize those shipments) and the maps did not reveal the locations of safe houses (in case the maps fell into enemy hands). An archive of the maps was donated to the British Library's Map Library. The collection also includes escape maps printed by the prisoners themselves on a home-made printing press virtually under the noses of their German guards.

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